A whiff of the world's oldest incense tradition

17th April, 2018

Incense forms the fragrant backbone of many cultures. India is where the art was first discovered, writes Krishnaraj Iyengar.

Pure sandalwood incense offered to idol of Ganesha

Like the crest is to the wave, or the leaf is to the tree, incense is the soul of Indian fragrance heritage. A common binding thread between faiths, cultures and peoples within the boundaries of this ancient land, incense is truly, the scent of the Indian soul.

Incense Inventor

India is said to have pioneered the art of making perfume from natural fragrant ingredients, a tradition that dates back several millennia, to the Vedas- the world’s first revealed scriptures and to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Fragrance has been one of the greatest aids to worship and innumerable ancient spiritual and mystical Indic traditions have employed fragrance as a medium of connection between the spirit and its creator.

Apart from distillate extracts of agarwood, sandalwood and flowers, India also pioneered the art and science of making incense, an elixir that fragrances the space through the combustion of fragrant materials with aromas permeating through smoke. Principally, incense emerged in the form of sticks and powder and later, cones, and cups. ‘Agarbatti’, literally ‘light of agar’, was originally an incense stick made of pure agarwood powder. Today, the word remains a mere indicator to ‘incense stick’ considering the skyrocketing of agarwood prices.

Avatars of Indian Incense

Made of several complex combinations of powders and sandalwood refuse, the body of the agarbatti is backboned by a thin bamboo stick that runs through its length. Two types of agarbattis prevail today, ‘masala’-a combination of various natural or synthetic powders rolled and bound together by jiggit powder (a type of adhesive), and ‘scented’, wherein the relatively scentless body is dipped into fragrance oils which seep into it to emit the fragrance when lit. While honey and loban resin enhance the agarbatti, charcoal is added to enable combustion. The top end of the agarbatti is lit while the bamboo jutting out at the bottom is placed in a holder.

‘Dhoop’ is another variety of Indian incense. While dhoop sticks are just shorter agarbattis without the bamboo, smaller dhoops in cone and cup form are also popular. Members of the ancient Jain faith prefer dhoops in their places of worship to agarbattis as they consider the former more environment-friendly. Many Indians also harbor superstitions regarding bamboo sticks used in agarbattis and prefer dhoops instead.

Burning camphor and gugal ( from the Indian bdellium tree) as incense are also a common Indian practice.

Advertisement — article continues below

Scent and Spirit

In Sanatana Dharma or ‘Hinduism’, incense forms an integral part of every ‘Havan’ ceremony where fragrant materials are offered to the sacred fire. Incense is also an indispensible part of every ‘pooja’ adoration ceremony in which it is offered to the deity. Agarbattis are an essential part of every Hindu household where members light one or more every morning and evening, spreading the fragrant smoke throughout the home while reciting prayers, and then placing them before the idol or image of the deity. While many Muslims offer agarbattis at mausoleums of Sufi saints, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhist and Christians alike, find their solace in the bliss of incense.

For a grandstand view into the subject, I bring our readers three veterans from three diverse regions of India:



Guru Acharya (South)


Guru Acharya

The stalwart upholder of the legendary south Indian incense tradition makes soulful olfactory magic through his renowned brand ‘Nandita Fragrances’ founded in 1956 by his father Mr. K. Y. Acharya . Known to be unmistakably spiritually elevating, Acharya’s incenses are like Indian classical ‘raga’ melodies, each having their own color, mood and unique personality. Nandita offers a formidable and diverse bouquet of varied incenses, each being a symbol of gilt-edge Indian fragrance heritage.

While the tradition of pure agarwood incense sticks is nearly extinct, Acharya’s ‘Dehn El Oud’, ‘Acharya Oud’ and ‘Arabian Oud’ agarbattis contain a portion of pure agarwood oil and powder that offers soul to the accompanying notes and neat oud carpet notes. His ethereal florals like ‘Acharya Rose’, ‘Lucky Buddha’, ‘Floral Valley’, ‘Attar’ and ‘Limited Edition’, spicy agarbattis like ‘Wood Spice’ and ‘Spice Tree’ and sandalwood specials like ‘Black Gold’ and ‘Acharya Sandal’ to name a few, are deeply meditative and elevating.

India's Hallmark Agarwood Incense by Nadita Fragrances

“Masala agarbattis are incense sticks that contain herbal and natural ingredients like loban, styrax , labdanum, oakmoss and oriental perfumes that are heavy and sensual at the same time. These ‘joss sticks’ are made of resins and honey and are soft in nature. They burn for a long duration. These were used in palaces and ‘durbar’ (royal court) halls and hence also known as ‘durbar batti’ ” Acharya explains. He believes that joss sticks were once manufactured by Muslims who gave them the name ‘agarbatti’ to highlight the product’s value.

Ancient Vedic 'Dashaangam' Incense Powder

Acharya also specializes in ‘Dashaangam’- an exotic incense powder reminiscent of ancient Indian temples. While it can be offered to the sacred fire during Havan, dashangam can also be burnt over charcoal or on electric incense burners. “Dashaangam finds place in worship right since Vedic times with ingredients derived from the Ayurveda-India’s ancient classical medical science. These include anise, star anise, sandalwood, agarwood, cedarwood, frankincense, turmeric, cactus root, vetiver, clove and patchouli to name a few, which are powdered, mixed with oils like sandalwood and ghee and allowed to mature. Dashaangam is the Indian version of Arabian ‘Bakhoor’ ” he explains.

Nandita’s bakhoors or Arabic-style incenses are in great demand in the Middle East. Bakhoors ‘Al Barakah’ with a dominant rose, ‘Marhaba’ and ‘Afreen’ with musk, saffron, amber and sandalwood that bathe the fine agarwood flakes take you back to the rustic Arab souqs of Yemen, Jordan and Oman.



Kushal Gundhi (North)


Kushal Gundhi

The eight generation torchbearer of his family’s 200 year-old Gulabsingh Johrimal fragrance tradition of Delhi, has inherited the wealth of knowledge and passion from his illustrious ancestors. His great grandfather Shri Lala Rameshwar Das pioneered the art of incense in Delhi after acquiring expert knowledge from Bengaluru in the south, the seat of India’s incense making traditions.

Kushal’s vast repertoire consists of agarbattis that recreate the sanctum sanctorums of ancient places of worship and pilgrimage with the fragrance of pure sandalwood giving depth to the varied floral, spicy and woody incenses. His hallmark ‘Gulab Chandan’, ‘Musk Amber’, frangipani, rosewood, rose and ‘Kesar Chandan’ (saffron and sandalwood) spell gentleness, finesse and possess a deeply spiritual vibe considering that praying over fragrance and incense has been a family tradition with this age-old perfumery. He believes that an agarbatti is ‘havan swaroop’ or a miniature havan-a marriage of various fragrant materials enhanced by fire and a medium of worship.

Exotic Indian Incense Varieties by Kushal Gundhi

“Lakkad dhoop is yet another fascinating form of Indian incense. It is purely natural dhoop extracted from the earth. The forests of the Chamba region of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh produce the best lakkad dhoop. The village folk penetrate the higher reaches to dig it out”, says Gundhi. The material is basically a root without any plant growing out of it. Retrieved in raw form, the real test of authenticity is that it becomes resinous and semi-soft when crushed. Experts separate the mishmash of unwanted materials from the real one.

“Indigenous ‘desi ghee’ is added to the dhoop to make it malleable and ductile and to enable combustion. With some exceptions, no synthetic materials are used in its manufacture. Several smaller pieces can be plucked out from the homogenous cylinder of this material and rolled into smaller dhoops. The peculiar aroma is earthy and green. It is healing, purifies the atmosphere and is also used for worship ” explains Gundhi.

Havan Saamagri

‘Havan Saamagri’ is a rare form of incense that the Gundhis sell. It is a mélange of several indigenous fragrant herbs offered to the sacred fire and also burnt over charcoal, a practiced called ‘dhuni lagana’ in Hindi, to dispel negative energy and bring about a spiritual vibe.



Vikram Shah (West)


Vikram Shah

Another leader in the art of traditional Indian incense is Vikram Shah of ‘Vedic Vaani’, specializing in incense and spiritual products. Based in Mumbai and originally hailing from Gujarat in western India, Shah boasts of a versatile repertoire of varied agarbattis and dhoops known for their gentle and captivating aromas. “A major problem with agarbattis is that their overpowering fragrances can cause health issues to many, who either put it off half way or transfer it to another space in their home. We employ immaculate technical skill to ensure that our incenses are tolerable to all and remain in the background, yet enhancing the atmosphere”, says Shah.

Oudh Premium Dhoop Sticks

Owing to the spiritual significance of incenses, he strongly believes that their scent can cleanse the ‘inner body’ and evoke positive energy and spirituality. “Incenses are a worshipper’s best friends. Their inexplicable magic can transform our consciousness, bringing us closer to God, heal the mind and thoughts that emerge from it” he says. While his arabesque oud dhoop, ‘Arabian Oud’, ‘Exotic Natural Oud’ and ‘Oud Masala’ agarbattis energize the atmosphere, his endearing florals like Kewda, a tribute to India’s ethereal indigenous pandanus flower, and ‘Night Queen’ ( Night Jasmine or ‘Raat ki Raani’) bring calm and gentleness.

Vedic Vaani Incense Sticks

While loban resin is intolerable to many considering the large amounts of smoke emitted when it is burnt over charcoal, Vikram Shah’s Loban Agarbatti bares the authentic loban fragrance, emitting minimal smoke. His ‘Exotic Divine Sandal’ is yet another energy booster with masculine, deep aromas that gentle caress the senses.

  • Share this

About the author: Krishnaraj Iyengar

Krishnaraj Iyengar is a musician, composer, international lifestyle and culture writer and multi-linguist from Mumbai-India. His keen interest in cultures, mystic poetry and traveling has led him to discover fascinating colors of the world. Krishnaraj has a fierce passion for fragrances which he calls ‘angels of spiritual connection’ and apart from learning about diverse fragrance traditions, he even blends his own unique scents that are symbols of his personality and soul.


    Advertisement — comments are below


      • hednic | 17th April 2018 12:42

        That was a very interesting article.

      • gandhajala | 17th April 2018 13:52

        Lovely! Thank you for this article.

        One of the many great pleasures of India is the constant whiffs of incense one gets throughout the day.

        About the country's long history of perfumery, I wrote a blog post wherein I translated a short section from the 6th century CE Sanskrit compendium Bṛhatsaṃhitā. In case anyone is interested here's the link.

      • epapsiou | 17th April 2018 15:10

        Thanks for the link. I had read it earlier but had forgotten where. Now I will not forget :)

      • Primrose | 26th April 2018 21:36

        Great article on the traditions of fragrance. Thank you.